Frans de Waal examines the differences between the USA and Europe, and the relative merits of each... Is competition good for us?
A Darwinist Against Social Darwinism: I
A Darwinist Against Social Darwinism: II
Looking at current events in the USA and in Europe today, we can see evidence within two huge ongoing self-inflicted crises that says something about the culture which each region has chosen to build for itself.
In the USA we see the environmental and economic disaster that has resulted from the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. As of the date of this post the massive leak has still not been contained. Despite the boorish mantra of "Drill baby, drill!" at the 2008 Republican Convention, and Obama's campaign promise not to do so, Obama relented not too long before this disaster struck in an extremely unfortunate case of poor timing and agreed to allow the resumption of some offshore drilling. Our American addiction to cheap gasoline and cheap energy in general has come back to bite us in a big way. Up until this point, our sense of American exceptionalism, our hyper-individualistic ethos and our free-market dogmatism has prevented us from being as clear-eyed about environmental sustainability as the people in other comparable countries in the world have been. There doesn't appear to be much willingness to make personal sacrifices in order to change things...
In Europe, the Greek debt crisis has sent shock waves across the continent as fear of contagion spreads. Riots have broken out in Greece as the government has called for new austerity measures. The fate of the euro, if not the entire European Union, is in doubt according to more pessimistic observers. The causes of the Greek crisis are complex, and there is no doubt that some of it can be laid at the feet of the US subprime fiasco, but part of it also lies within a culture that enjoyed an influx of new (unearned) money and was enjoying having too much of something for nothing. There doesn't appear to be much willingness to make personal sacrifices in order to change things...
I had posted twice before about what the primatologist Frans de Waal has to say about evolution, human empathy, competition, and cooperation. He's from the Netherlands, but has spent the past few decades working in the USA. In light of his ongoing thesis, I'd be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts about his observations on the relative merits and demerits of the USA and Europe.
I have received in a Manchester Newspaper a rather good squib, showing that I have proved “might is right,” & therefore that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right.
—Charles Darwin, 1860
(photo: Herbert Spencer) The idea of competition within the same species over the same resources appealed to Charles Darwin and helped him formulate the concept of natural selection. He had read Thomas Malthus’s influential 1798 essay on population growth, according to which populations that outgrow their food supply will automatically be cut back by hunger, disease, and mortality. Unfortunately, Herbert Spencer read the same essay and drew different conclusions. If strong varieties progress at the expense of inferior ones, this was not only how it was, Spencer felt, but how it ought to be. Competition was good, it was natural, and society as a whole benefited. He applied the naturalistic fallacy to a T.
Why did Spencer’s ideas fall on such receptive ears? It seems to me that he was offering a way out of a moral dilemma that people were only just getting used to. In earlier times, the rich didn’t need any justification to ignore the poor. With their blue blood, the nobility considered itself a different breed. They showed their contempt for manual labor by being wasp-waisted in the West or growing elongated fingernails in the East. Not that they felt absolutely no obligation toward those underneath them — hence the expression noblesse oblige — but they had no qualms living in opulence, feasting on meat, slurping fine wine, and driving around in gilded carriages, while the masses were close to starving.
All of this changed with the Industrial Revolution, which created a new upper crust, one that couldn’t overlook the plight of others so easily. Many of them had belonged to the lower class only a few generations before: They evidently were of the same blood. So, shouldn’t they share their wealth? They were reluctant to do so though, and were thrilled to hear that there was nothing wrong with ignoring those who worked for them, that it was perfectly honorable to climb the ladder of success without looking back. This is how nature works, Spencer assured them, thus removing any pangs of conscience the rich might feel…
Long ago American society embraced competition as its chief organizing principle even though everywhere one looks—at work, in the street, in people’s homes—one finds the same appreciation of family, companionship collegiality, and civic responsibility as everywhere else in the world. This tension between economic freedom and community values is fascinating to watch, which I do both as an outsider and an insider, being a European who has lived and worked in the United States for more than twenty-five years. The pendulum swings that occur at regular intervals between the main political parties of this nation show that the tension is alive and well, and that a hands-down winner shouldn’t be expected anytime soon. This bipolar state of American society isn’t hard to understand. It’s not that different from the situation in Europe, except that all political ideologies on this side of the Atlantic seem shifted to the right. What makes American politics baffling is the way it draws upon biology and religion.
Evolutionary theory is remarkably popular among those on the conservative end of the spectrum, but not in the way biologists would like it to be. The theory figures like a secret mistress. Passionately embraced in its obscure persona of “Social Darwinism,” it is rejected as soon as the daylight shines on real Darwinism. In a 2008 Republican presidential debate, no less than three candidates raised their hand in response to the question “Who doesn’t believe in evolution?” No wonder that schools are hesitant to teach evolutionary theory, and that zoos and natural history museums avoid the e-word. Its hate love relation with biology is the first great paradox of the American political landscape.
Social Darwinism is all about what Gordon Gekko called “the evolutionary spirit.” It depicts life as a struggle in which those who make it shouldn’t let themselves be dragged down by those who don’t. This ideology was unleashed by British political philosopher Herbert Spencer, who in the nineteenth century translated the laws of nature into business language, coining the phrase "survival of the fittest” (often incorrectly attributed to Darwin). Spencer decried attempts to equalize society’s playing field. It would be counterproductive, he felt, for the “fit” to feel any obligation toward the "unfit.” In dense tomes that sold hundreds of thousands of copies, he said of the poor that “the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better. "
The United States listened attentively. The business world ate it up. Calling competition a law of biology Andrew Carnegie felt it improved the human race. John D Rockefeller even married it with religion, concluding that the growth of a large business “is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.” This religious angle — still visible in the so-called Christian Right — forms the second great paradox. Whereas the book found in most American homes and every hotel room urges us on almost every page to show compassion, Social Darwinists scoff at such feelings, which only keep nature from running its course. Poverty is dismissed as proof of laziness, and social justice as a weakness. Why not simply let the poor perish? I find it hard to see how Christians can embrace such a harsh ideology without a massive case of cognitive dissonance, but many seem to do so.
The third and final paradox is that the emphasis on economic freedom triggers both the best and worst in people. The worst is the aforementioned deficit in compassion, at least at the governmental level, but there is also a good, even excellent, side to the American character—otherwise I might have packed my bags long ago—which is a merit-based society. Silver spoons, fancy titles, family legacies, all of them are known and respected, but not nearly as much as personal initiative, creativity, and plain hard work. Americans admire success stories, and will never hold honest success against anyone. This is truly liberating for those who are up to the challenge.
Europeans are far more divided by rank and class and tend to prefer security over opportunity. Success is viewed with suspicion. It’s not for nothing that the French language offers only negative labels for people who have made it by themselves, such as nouveau riche and parvenu. The result in some nations, has been economic gridlock. When I see twenty-year-olds march in the streets of Paris to claim job protection or older people to preserve retirement at fifty-five, I feel myself all of a sudden siding with American conservatives who detest entitlement. The state is not a teat from which one can squeeze milk any time of the day, yet that’s how many Europeans seem to look at it.
And so my political philosophy sits somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic—not too comfortable a place. I appreciate the economic and creative vitality on this side but remain perplexed by the widespread hatred of taxes and government. Biology is very much part of this mix as it is for every ideology that seeks justification. Social Darwinism sought to supply a scientific endorsement craved by a nation of immigrants who had quite naturally developed a strong sense of self-reliance and individualism. The problem is that one can’t derive the goals of society from the goals of nature. Trying to do so is known as the naturalistic fallacy, which is the impossibility of moving from how things are to how things ought to be. Thus, if animals were to kill one another on a large scale, this wouldn’t mean we have to do so, too, any more than we would have an obligation to live in perfect harmony if animals were to do so. All that nature can offer is information and inspiration, not prescription.
Information is critical, though. If a zoo plans a new enclosure, it takes into account whether the species to be kept is social or solitary, a climber or a digger, nocturnal or diurnal, and so on. Why should we, in designing human society, act as if we’re oblivious to the characteristics of our species? A view of human nature as “red in tooth and claw” obviously sets different boundaries to society than a view that includes cooperation and solidarity as part of our background. Darwin himself felt uncomfortable about the “right of the strongest” lessons that others, such as Spencer, tried to extract from his theory. This is why I’m tired, as a biologist, to hear evolutionary theory being trotted out as a prescription for society by those who aren’t truly interested in the theory itself and all that it has to offer.